DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The push for young talent could lead to a future where talk about drivers retiring begins when they’re 35 years old, says former champion crew chief Ray Evernham.
As 43-year-old Jeff Gordon starts what he says will be his final full Sprint Cup season, when a driver should retire is again a topic. That age once was thought to be 50. Now, it is 45 and could be falling.
“A lot of it has got to do with the technology of the cars, the fact that these kids are coming younger and younger now and it’s a lot more based on engineering,’’ said Evernham, who won three championships as Gordon’s crew chief in the 1990s, of the continued youth movement.
“If you’ve got a 35-year-old driver and a guy who is 21 that you can pay half the money and he’s going twice as fast, you’re going to be looking at that. 10 years from now, they’re going to be talking at 35 that he’s at the end of his career.
“It’s not a trend that the drivers are going to be able to control. It’s going to be like Formula One. It’s going to be controlled for them.’’
Among drivers 35 years old are Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer. Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard turn 35 this season.
More than a third of the 49 drivers entered for Sunday’s Daytona 500 are 29 years and younger. The group includes Kyle Larson (22 years old), Joey Logano (24) and Kyle Busch (29).
There are nine drivers age 40 or older entered, including Michael Waltrip (51), Tony Stewart (43) and defending Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. (40). Jimmie Johnson and reigning series champion Kevin Harvick turn 40 this year.
Both Earnhardt and Matt Kenseth (42) have said they plan to race for several more years. Greg Biffle (45) is in the first year of a three-year contract with Roush Fenway Racing.
Even so, the youth movement continues at a gradual pace. When Trevor Bayne scored his shocking Daytona 500 win four years ago at age 20, he was one of 11 drivers in that race age 29 and under. That equaled how many drivers in that race who were age 40 and older.
When Kevin Harvick won the Daytona 500 eight years ago, there were 12 drivers age 29 and younger in the field but 14 drivers age 40 or older in it.
Former champion Darrell Waltrip, an analyst for Fox Sports, says technology is making drivers better at a younger age.
“Here’s what kids have today that drivers didn’t have years ago,’’ he said. “They have all the simulation. They can sit at a computer or a console and run every racetrack that we go to.”
So when they get to the track, these younger drivers are more competitive.
“These kids are winning races already in other series,” Waltrip said. “So they come into Cup experienced veterans almost at 17, 18, 19 year olds. I think technology has changed a lot of things.’’
Just look at Chase Elliott becoming the youngest champion last season in what is now the Xfinity Series at age 19. He’ll make his Sprint Cup debut next month at Martinsville Speedway and take over Gordon’s No. 24 ride next season at Hendrick Motorsports.
There’s another factor that could lead to drivers retiring or cutting back their schedule sooner, notes Fox Sports analyst Larry McReynolds.
“One thing that is different today with these drivers is the outside demands that are on them,’’ he said. “When Darrell was driving, he maybe had a few sponsors. These drivers today, they may have five or six primary sponsor that they’re having to do stuff for on a pretty consistent basis, not to mention all the other things that they have going on. I think it’s a lot of these off-track demands that maybe really takes a toll on them above and beyond what they’re doing on the racetrack.’’
Either way, the challenges could be growing for veteran drivers to keep their rides in the future.